Dev Harlan: “I found a wilder geometry in the desert”

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Roxanne Vardi

Multidisciplinary artist Dev Harlan works in sculpture, installation and digital media. He has had solo exhibitions with Christopher Henry Gallery, Gallery Madison Park, and Northern-Southern. His works have also been included in major group shows. The artist has also completed corporate commissions for Canon, Target and Y-3/Adidas. 

Dev Harlan’s sculptural and digital media works deal with geometric and geological forms, and themes related to landscape, land transformation and anthropogenic change. Niio Art’s curatorial team sat down with the artist to discuss his art practice and latest artworks all which are available to experience on Niio.

Can you elaborate on your explorations of geology in your artworks and how this came about in your art practice in general?

Absolutely. I think I can trace this direction to my first visit at the AZ-West artist compound in Joshua Tree, and a subsequent artist residency at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Arizona. I spent a month in the Sonoran desert, hiking and photographing rocks and boulders. I was very inspired by the desert landscape and saw something poetic in the geological process that shaped it. My previous artwork dealt with geometry and pattern, but in the desert rocks I found a geometry much more wild and alluring. I began studying and reproducing these wild rocks through mold-making, casting, 3D scanning and 3D printing. An interest in geology and landscape also inspired me to work with aerial photography. I did this using low cost cameras flown from a weather balloon. During another residency in Joshua Tree I spent time photographing the National Park and Amboy Crater, CA. From these I created 3D terrain maps using photogrammetry. I began using Google Earth a lot and also discovered the vast and beautiful satellite images being taken of Mars. The writing of Kim Stanley Robinson was influential at this time.

Dev Harlan, Wonder Valley Iron Age UV Stratigraphy, #2, 2022.

Extractivism is a subject that appears in your work, connected to the interest in geology and terraformation, as can be seen in projects such as Aero Gardens and the Gale Crater. Can you elaborate on this connection between geology and capitalism, and how your work addresses it?

Once you start paying attention to landscape it is difficult to ignore the effects of anthropogenic change. In the desert, mining operations are the most obvious, they are visible from many miles away. I have visited a few in the Southwest. Photographing, scanning, documenting. Extractivism is geoscience in the service of capital. The altruistic aim of the sciences is knowledge building. But the practical applications, and highest paid work, in geology is the assessment of resources for industry. Every single electronic device, battery or screen contains elements that were mined from somewhere. The demands of capital drive ever greater extraction, but little thought is given to the toxic scars etched on the landscape. They are stupendously large. Bingham Copper Mine in Utah is nearly four miles across, the largest open pit mine in the US. Interestingly it is also a site studied by Robert Smithson for a proposed land art intervention. Thinking about the resources required for a proposed Martian city I made a speculative 3D model placing the Bingham Copper mine on the surface of Mars at Gale Crater, a site currently being explored by the NASA Curiosity Rover. Everyone wants to speculate about what the city of the future will look like. Nobody thinks about the impossibly large hole in the ground that will be required to build and supply it. How will these renewed colonialist ambitions avoid all the same problems we already have on Earth?

Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems #1, 2022.

“Everyone wants to speculate about what the city of the future will look like. Nobody thinks about the impossibly large hole in the ground that will be required to build and supply it.”

Your new series of works Five Body Problems deals with anthropogenic change and the irreversible effects that we as humans are causing our planet. This very charged subject matter is presented in your works in a  very delicate manner. How would you want your viewers to approach this new body of work?

I think most intelligent people are already inundated with bad news about the terrible state of the planet, so I don’t want to beat people over the head. Some may not want to hear them at all. At the same time I can’t use technology within my artistic practice without also addressing how technology is complicit in extractivism and land degradation. So I use aesthetic compositions and visual spectacle to draw the viewer into the work, which may reveal a depiction of a reality which is not so pleasant. The logic of limitless consumption has created an unmanageable cycle where resources are dislocated, used and discarded. In the series “Five Body Problems” I focus on technological waste depicted in the ubiquitous and recognizable form of mobile devices. These devices contain a wide variety of precious metal and minerals which primarily end up as waste. The currently accepted figure of 55 million tons annually almost defies the ability to imagine. Through animation and textual dialog I question the afterlives of the unthinkable amount of technological waste required to maintain our digital dreams and desires, while also proposing alternative futures to a system of unchecked consumption.

There are different layers of materiality in your work, from the photogrammetric scans of real stones to the animated 3D versions, the sculptures and the projections on them. How do these different layers intervene in each project? How do you decide what kind of materiality you want to create?

I think I am often exploring the tension between material and immaterial objects. The stone surface has an immutability that suggests stability over time. The digital image or model is in fact an ephemeral collection of electronic impulses on a screen, or magnetic traces on a hard drive that could be wiped out instantly. What if the stone becomes an immaterial digital model? What if the immaterial model is carved in stone? What if both of these representations are combined? I am often deliberately mixing materialities in order to dislocate the hierarchies between them. The video projection work employs a similar strategy. The cast stone surfaces tell the story of a vast temporal history that changes little over a thousand years. Yet the video projections are as ephemeral as a rainbow – they are pretty but can’t be touched and will soon fade. I am juxtaposing these to create a tension between vastly different temporalities.

“Through animation and textual dialog I question the afterlives of the unthinkable amount of technological waste required to maintain our digital dreams and desires, while also proposing alternative futures to a system of unchecked consumption.”

Dev Harlan, Found Boulder, Section Six #5, Float, 2022.

In your work we find a combination of abstract, geometrical compositions and objects, and elements taken from nature such as rocks or plants. What interests you about this confrontation of natural and artificial elements, textures, colors, and structures?

Yes there are a lot of things going on, and I think in part it is due to a variety of different phases and interests in my practice. In the late 90’s I was doing very geeky video work and installation with vintage computers. Then for many years I made only geometric sculptures with 3D video projection where I was motivated by a Sol LeWitt type of serial minimalism. More recently there is the body of work interested in geology and planetary science, in dialogue with a wide range of ideas across art, science and critical theory. More and more I find a want to flatten these categorical and temporal distinctions and reference all of the things that cross through my mind, either ten years ago or last week. By mining my own past I try to keep all these different threads and thoughts in dialogue with each other. The thinking of Timothy Morton comes to mind, who writes in an illuminating yet cryptic way about the ontology of objects and their embedded set of relationships. It’s a strategy towards non-anthropocentric thinking, to posit a world of objects in relation, collapsing the hierarchy which places homosapien at the top.

Can you dive deeper into the different technological softwares which you make use of in the creation of your works?

Sure. Much of my recent digital work starts with 3D scans of the natural world. For this I often shoot on a DSLR and use Reality Capture for photogrammetry processing. I often expose the processes and artifacts of 3D scanning, making work from live screenshots, or the constructed UV texture maps. For 3D animation and rendering I use standard industry tools such as Cinema4D with either Redshift or Arnold renderer. I have used Derivative Touch Designer for many years to do video projection mapping and to produce generative animation. A few years ago I built a delta printer from a kit to do 3D printing. I’ve experimented with a variety of filaments, including metal and chalk. Most recently I have also begun to create generative 3D works developed in webGL using Babylonjs.

Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems #3 (Afterlives), 2022.

In the creation of your artworks, what is the balance between live footage which you collect from your natural surroundings, and data which you collect digitally or online?

For me the best source is always what tells the narrative. If the narrative is of a place I am visiting I try to document the actual place in a variety of modes, perspectives and temporalities. This has included still photography, video, HDRI capture, iPhone panoramas or timelapse. I use a variety of cameras and phones. They all bring a different sense of place, and become more interesting when juxtaposed. I rely on photogrammetry a lot because, in some essentialist way, I am interested in real things, and photogrammetry models are traces of the real. They bring with them with all the flaws, imperfections and the embedded narratives of materiality and place. The internet is also a valuable source. If the narrative is about a place I cannot visit, such as the Bingham copper mine, or Mars, I have used terrain depth models of Earth and Mars in the public domain from USGS or NASA/JPL. And if the narrative is depicting technology or other man made artifacts I freely pilfer the internet. It seems the most appropriate to appropriate.

“I am always striving for a balance between the digital and the physical, as I think that speaks most vividly of our contemporary condition.”

Your art practice includes printmaking, sculpting, casting, stone-carving, and working with digital 3D tools to discuss topics such as climate change and technology’s impact on the ecology. How do you balance between these different art forms and mediums?

Yes, and I think this goes back to the idea of having gone through a few different phases within my art practice and becoming somewhat medium agnostic. Like many, working during the pandemic encouraged a strong pivot back towards the digital, and my most productive areas have been in digital art making. However, materiality is important for me. I love the tactile practice of sculpture and visceral encounters of real things in space. I am always striving for a balance between the digital and the physical, as I think that speaks most vividly of our contemporary condition. We have normalized the immaterial digital presence or virtually anything or anyone. However technology’s virtualizing effect has not liberated us from the world of material things – in fact technology has a real material presence with real world impacts. It is solid. it is ephemeral. It is real and hyperreal. Working across many mediums I try to acknowledge all the overlapping temporalities and materialities in our cultural present-tense.

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